"One by two" is a quintessentially Indian term. Every Indian understands it and I would guess that no non-Indian does. It's a phrase heard frequently at one's local "chai-wallah" or tea-shop. What does this cryptic phrase mean?
Indians in most parts of the country like their tea and often drink it several times a day. The first thing you're offered when you enter a meeting or someone's home, no matter what time of day it is, is a cup of tea. Those not familiar with Indian tea should be forewarned that it may not be the kind of tea you'd expect to find in China, Japan, the US or other parts of the world. Indian tea is made with black tea leaves and is usually quite milky and very sweet.
Even growing up drinking this kind of tea, you wouldn't be expected to drink large quantities of it in each sitting.
Combine that with Indians' famous tendency towards frugality and resource optimisation, and you come up with "one by two". Which means, when you order tea at the local tea-shop, "split a cup of tea into two halves, please" for yourself and a friend.
Photo credit: Michal Svec
As you can see the standard tea cup isn't very big to begin with. Two or three gulps and it's gone. Yet, "one by two" is by no means an absurd request, and definitely a quite common one at roadside tea stalls.
Why am I blogging about tea all of a sudden? Because the other day I heard the phrase "three by five"! That really made me do a double-take. Most interestingly (and here, I shall resort to bullets):
- I overheard this in a fairly high-end food court. The question of affordability does not even arise.
- The food court is in Singapore. Language export!
- How did the busy server quickly divide three cups into five with a minimum of wasted time? Does he get similar requests all the time?
The other thing that struck me recently in similar vein was India's recent launch of a Mars-bound spacecraft called Mangalyaan. As this piece in the New Yorker points out,
The I.S.R.O. has a reputation for austerity, exemplified in a famous photograph from 1981 of India’s APPLE satellite being transported on a bullock cart. The agency’s scientists are paid between twelve hundred and two thousand dollars a month, and, unusual for space programs, its equipment is endlessly tweaked and recycled: the rocket that carried the Mars orbiter into space was adapted from a launch vehicle that first flew in 1993. Only one physical model of Mangalyaan was ever produced. (The I.S.R.O. relied extensively on software for testing.)
Photo credit: The New Yorker
All of which should interest and inform India-watchers and those who do business there. Remember that many (but not all) people and institutions see strength in frugality. It's not a "right" or "wrong" way of doing things; just a different way of doing things compared to many other parts of the world. Don't let yourself be surprised.
Also watch out: sometimes, the philosophy of frugality gets abused and taken to an extreme.